I just read Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt. It’s wonderful; will make you think, and enjoy your thinking. Almost anyone who’s bothered to visit this humble blog more than a couple of times would enjoy it, I think.
I’ll provide a few words of review (just cheerleading, basically) and then dip into a little metaphysics myself; but I’ll warn you so you can stop reading before I go there.
The Question and the Method · The Question is “Why is there anything?” — obviously the center of metaphysics. Because, well, maybe there needn’t have been. Scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers prefer simpler explanations and shorter stories; and what could be simpler than the null universe? No dimensions of space nor time, no quantum vacuum, no planets, no J.S. Bach, no reality TV.
Many have wrestled with this problem, and many, over the centuries, have joined it to another: the existence (or not) of God. However, nobody I’ve read (and I actually like metaphysics) has addressed it with Holt’s clarity, good humor, and open mind.
The method is, Holt lays out background and introduces the leading schools of thought, then travels around to visit and converse with their leading living exponents. They’re all interesting people, it seems; you’ll be glad to have met them even indirectly.
The nooks and crannies between voyages, and between theories, are filled with personal anecdote, sometimes helpful in casting light the existential shooting gallery, almost always featuring good wine in interesting places. We also visit a canine medical crisis and his mother’s deathbed.
What He Thinks · He likes Leibniz and Spinoza and Derek Parfit, of whom I hadn’t previously heard, but now I want to read. He loathes Hegel and Sartre, as any reasonable person must.
He’s actually pretty convinced that his own elaboration on Parfit’s notion of Selectors is sound, and might even amount to a proof of why something-rather-than-nothing is necessary.
It’s a good book! Read it!
Me on Miracles · I threatened you with metaphysics, and here’s where they start. But this is the Philosophy-Lite section, so bear with me for two paragraphs.
What’s a “miracle”? Simple: It’s something we observe which neither science or logical deduction can explain.
Unless you believe that one of the theories Holt describes really proves nullity is impossible, well then, the Universe itself, and all the things in it, are a great big miracle. Because science may explain how it all works, but has no consensus about why it’s all here; as opposed to not. Hey, a miracle that an atheist has to acknowledge is A Good Thing, I think we can all agree.
Metaphysical Bullets · Warning: This section mentions Kant and Tantra and multiverses. But since we’re private-sector geeks, I bullet-list the philosophy for you.
Liebniz’s argument for the Uncaused Cause has always resonated with me. We observe that everything we observe has a cause and an explanation. Why should the universe as a whole be any difference? So what’s its cause? Back when we believed in an infinite past, this was less worrying; but we don’t any more.
Doesn’t make me feel Theist in the slightest, but it’s still attractive.
I have a Math degree; I’m pretty sure that the (large proportion of) mathematicians who, like me, believe math is discovered not invented, also believe that even if the Universe were null, Modus ponens would be a reality, and that numbers would still exist even if no mind existed to consider or inscribe them.
(Geek sidebar: When I was a programmer working on the Maple algebra system, I was astounded to discover that when comparing any two things whatsoever for equality, the program would evaluate-and-simplify both sides as much as possible, and then simply see if the same object came out of the process. Because, you see, there’s really only one number 2 in a computer-algebra system; or in the Universe. But there for damn sure is that one.)
Someone like me who’s pretty sure that math exists independent of the universe gets interested in problems like Kant’s notion of the “synthetic a priori”, something that is true, but not mechanically derivable using processes of pure logic. He claimed that 7 + 5 = 12 was an example, but that’s because he didn’t understand formal mathematics.
I’ve always thought that Induction was the synthetic a priori: the (admittedly circular) notion that since the behavior of the Universe as we observe it is consistent, we should feel safe in assuming that it will continue to be. All of Science and Engineering is based on this premise, but there’s nothing in the math that suggests it should be so.
Maybe I should write a book about this, but it probably wouldn’t be as much fun as Holt’s.
Of course, a synthetic a priori is much more satisfying than mechanical formal logical deduction, but it still doesn’t get you length or duration or mass or charge or any of the other things of which we’re built.
If, like me, you’re inclined to see the Universe as a miracle, but find the notion of a personalized deity ridiculous, you might want to investigate Tantric spirituality. It’s sort of messy and all over the place, but is inclined to embrace the world, perhaps even worship it. Worship, thanksgiving, and humility seem obviously good things.
You can ignore all the stuff about how the miraculous nature of reality is necessarily of Divine origin. Because one miracle is all you need, if it’s big enough.